Opera Meets Improv

There’s something about the entertainment industry that begs for people to be larger than life – some could say that this is especially true of those who perform opera for a living. There’s just something about that grand voice and flamboyant stage presence that makes opera resplendent.

Another art form that has that same grandness is improv comedy. Wasn’t quite what you were expecting to hear was it?! But, improv comedy has been around just as long as opera has – especially in the form of entertainment. And, it requires the same over-the-top, striking stage presence that opera requires – but, instead of taking your breath away with those glass-shattering high notes, improv comedy sets out to give you those deep belly laughs that leave you with a six-pack when the night is done. Or at least feeling like you’re well on your way to developing a six-pack.

Sometime in the company’s history, someone had the bright idea (read: best idea ever!) to have opera and improv comedy join forces. What could possibly be funnier than seeing an opera star comedically navigate their way through Don José pining over Carmen with an aria about Facebook stalking the love of his life?

We can’t guarantee that’s exactly what you’ll get, but you will get some stunning singing and laughs to boot when our Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artists head to the legendary Groundlings Theatre on May 15 and 16 to show off their opera and comedy skills. Under the guide of teacher Phyllis Katz – the Young Artists took months of classes to exercise their funny bone before hitting the stage. Although, Katz herself is no stranger to opera singers — in the seven years since she began working with young artists, Katz has developed an individual approach to teaching opera singers, covering everything from basic improv skills to character work.

“In the beginning, I spent half the class teaching basic improv exercises, and then working on music in the second half of the class,” discusses Katz. “I took the artists away from where they would normally go with their arias or duets, so that they may be spontaneous with their performances later.”

Katz still does nonmusical improv in the first half of the class and music in the other half while still pushing the singers out of their comfort zone. However, she has adjusted the course to what each new group of young artists need.

As with all artists, Katz focuses her work on getting the singers out of their own heads.

“I want them to stop thinking and just feel the music. Improv is a way to get you working from your gut,” says Katz.

Anyone who has taken an improv class or has seen an improv show knows that improv does just – forces someone out of their comfort zone. But, this is especially so for opera singers, who come from a very disciplined background. In class, Katz’s exercises allow the singers to let go of their discipline (if only for a while), make mistakes, be silly, and approach their characters with a completely different mindset.

Nicholas Brownlee and Summer Hassan in improv rehearsal

Nicholas Brownlee and Summer Hassan in improv rehearsal

Katz then takes the class in a new direction. She creates improv games that are tailored to the singers’ work. For example, she will have them hold a press conference as an operatic character, or ask a singer to portray an operatic character doing something very current – like Don José being literally all of us and drooling over our significant others on Facebook.

These exercises carry over to the musical work that Katz does in her class.

“When we do musical work, someone will sing an aria, and I will give them a set of circumstances that change the way they might perform it – either in terms of the personality of the singer, or the audience that night,” discusses Katz.

That means Katz might ask a singer to sing an aria, as if he/she only has one audience member, and that person is on their phone. Or, she might have a singer portray Carmen’s “Habanera” with absolutely no sex appeal.

“We go far afield, so that when the singer performs their aria again, they don’t come at it from a default position,” says Katz.

When asked how working with opera singers is different from the other improv groups she teaches, Katz says, “Everybody comes to improv from something different. Opera singers come from a place of discipline and it is wonderful when they understand the exercises, let

For tickets to Opera Meets Improv at Groundlings Theater, check out their website, or come to the door on May 15 and May 16 (show starts at 8pm). To learn more about the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program and LA Opera’s current and upcoming season, visit LA Opera’s website.

LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.
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